Saturday, May 15, 2010

The French know that there's nothing romantic about a coalition government

We are used to uneasy alliances being formed between people who have spent campaigns taking potshots at one another, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet .

The French are watching the Cameron-Clegg lovefest with bemused eyes. We’ve had coalition governments galore; in fact, single-party domination is the rarity here.

We are used to uneasy alliances being formed between people who have spent campaigns taking potshots at one another and can barely stand to be in the same room. Think Mitterrand and the Communists in 1981, or Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac in any number of unhappy permutations.

When the troops all finally get to stand together on the steps of the Elysée Palace, nobody tries to put on a brave face. You can almost hear the whirring as minds calculate how best to trip up the chap with the job you want.

People argue that Clameron – that’s what they’re calling the happy pair on the internet – come from such similar male, white, expensively educated backgrounds that it’s normal they should find it easy to deal with one another. Think again. You would be hard-pressed to find a more narrowly homogeneous ruling class than the French. They all attended the same government school, ENA, and, 20 or 30 years on, still mention the exit ranking of colleagues with the same contempt or respect Britain would give to Cameron’s Eton schooling, or John Prescott’s cruise stewarding. Paris watched the Love, Actually remake in the garden of Number 10 and thought, to a French (wo)man: “Come off it, you two.”

Forgetting one’s differences and working together for the public good? We haven’t bothered with that since 1945, with de Gaulle. It lasted less than a year (although it did create our National Health system, la Sécurité Sociale, and nationalised Renault, the banks, insurance companies, utilities, and mines). One of our wilier politicians’ lines, “Promises only commit those who believe in them” generally obtains in the horsetrading that gives birth to most of our governments.

And in France, nobody is ever allowed to forget who won the most votes. Cameron may not be President of Great Britain, but the Tories have more than 300 seats. The idea that he would dilute his hold on the house by ushering in PR seems suicidal – and stupid – to us.

The Sarkozy way would be to entice the dozen or so MPs needed for a full majority to cross the floor, lured by plum jobs and gongs. The threat of PR is only used to divide your opponents: the elder Mitterrand stayed in power by introducing PR. It gave Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front a couple of MPs in the National Assembly and was abolished two years later, but that was enough to ensure the FNs political durability, while keeping marginal constituencies out of the Right’s hands.

The French do think, however, that Cameron was right to ignore those hard-liners who felt it might have been better to leave a Lib-Lab coalition to make a hash of things, before calling another election. Sarkozy has few Shakespearean traits, but he does understand about tides in the affairs of men. Victory should always be seized, he would say, and has a momentum of its own.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

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